What: A box of wagashi (Japanese confections)
Where: Tokara, 6208 Phinney Ave. N., 784-0226
When: Yesterday, during Tokara's monthly touryanse (open house, held the 10th of each month)
How much: $10
Would I eat there again? Yes
Official Tasting Notes:
Tokara's "open house" isn't quite that. The door is unlocked, sure, but Tokara is primarily a wholesale operation (selling to places like Floating Leaves, Fresh Flours, Panama Tea House, and Neptune Coffee), so there's no real retail area, and there are no kitchen tours. Still, when I met owner Chika Togashi in the modest, tatami-lined living room of her little real estate office-turned-confectionery on Phinney Ridge, I couldn't have felt more at home. Or more like I'd traveled to Japan. The kitchen behind her was stacked with bamboo steamers and sieves, papers and powders, an entirely different artillery than what I've seen in most patisserie or candy-making kitchens. I looked outside to make sure I hadn't fallen down a rabbit hole: just three Japanese women, drinking sencha on a red blanket in the middle of a Zen garden.
I'd called ahead to arrange the purchase of three small wagashi, the Kyoto-style sweets that gain momentum in Japan this time of year, when the cherry trees blossom. When I padded in (my shoes sort of jumped off at the door), she handed me a box carefully packed with what I'd ordered, but I was surprised not to see sakura mochi, the sticky, bean-filled rice flour treats imbued with the flavor of the cherry leaves that surround them. When I asked, she brought out a tin packed with them, and offered me one with a cup of sencha, on the house.
What I like most about Japanese sweets is that I never have any idea what the hell is going on inside. Biting into one is like playing ingredient roulette. In this case, there was less variation - three of the four I tried were filled with azuki bean paste of varying textures.
The sakura mochi was just what I'd remembered from my time in Japan: soft and sticky all the way through, with pinkish rice that tastes like something a little girl would design, all sweet and flowery and grassy. The azuki paste inside was relatively smooth, and all of it was tinged with the earthy flavor of the preserved cherry leaf.
Next: the "young grass" confection. The soft, gummy green exterior, made with a combination of wheat and sticky rice flours and yomogi, tasted like spinach (in a good way); the yellow mashed yam and bean paste had the dry, granular texture I've really only ever encountered in Japanese sweets. Extra sticky outside, too. And who knew mugwort could make such great candy?
I was sort of avoiding the suhama (the green and yellow horseshoe-shaped one), but it ended up being my favorite. Both the yellow end, made from nutty, deeply earthy aged, roasted soy flour, and the green end, made with fresh, young soy flour (that tasted exactly like the fresh edamame beans you order at Japanese restaurants), had the consistency of playdough all the way through. Soy butter playdough, in the shape of an ocean wave. Sure, why not?
I liked the kasagano ("spring field") less. The outside was a cross between sponge cake and meringue, with a cotton candy texture but not much flavor. The azuki bean filling was chunky and less flavorful than the previous two fillings. Meh.
Anyway, there's a springtime adventure for you, in case chocolate chip cookies and marzipan are losing their allure.